Step Two: Lock your books in a trunk so they can be re-discovered.

June 4, 2010, 9:13 pm

A fun poll asks us what 20th century philosopher will be read in 100 years.  What I find interesting about the list is that it depends on what you mean by read, and by whom?   Are the works to be read as coursework?  for pleasure?  for shaping politics?  Who is the audience?  Professional philosophers?  Trends die quickly,  and the birth of analytic philosophy may be regarded as no more than a passing fancy suitable only for 22nd century historians of philosophy.  (“A New Interpretation of Two Dogmas of Empiricism”; “Hesperus, Phosphorus, and American Cosmology post-1969″; ‘The Trolley, Ethics, and Ancient Rail Safety Protocols”; I will be here all night if I get started)  The general educated public?  Most of the authors on that list aren’t read now by non-specialists.

So much in the past depended on the survival of your manuscripts.  It’s also interesting to consider the differences in what of a philosopher’s work was thought to be interesting when they lived, and what resonates now.  Leibniz’s contemporaries couldn’t pore over his letters to figure out what was UP with the monads; basic courses including Descartes read the Meditations, not the Passions or Optics or Meterologie; and many philosophers published their now-canonical works posthumously.

It would be interesting to see what a list like this would have looked like in, say, 17th century France, or 1st BCE Greece, or 19th or very early 20th century America.

Our present-day philosophers will see more of their works survive, and philosophy is now professionalized more than it has been in the past, although that might mean just that the canon ossifies more quickly, rather than lending longevity to the works of the canonized.

Were I to recommend a course for being read in 100 years, I’d recommend writing on as many topics as possible, so desperate gleaners of the past can find something sexy in your work, and writing engagingly for non-specialists but with sufficient subtlety that the profession bothers to keep your works taught, and that they need to be taught in order to be understood.  You should probably try to be scandalous; atheism was popular for a while but that won’t get you as many clutched pearls today.  Finally, your work should be imperfect but in a tantalizing way.  You can have a principle that doesn’t quite work; you can equivocate on a key term so future scholars have something to do; you can write e-mails that clarify your thoughts.

Of course, if you try this, you probably won’t get hired or get tenure.  Fortunately, that also fits a well-patina’d tradition.

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